Child custody rights refer to the legal rights that a parent is granted upon receiving custody of their child in a divorce setting. An example of this would be how a parent with legal custody over their child has the right to make important legal decisions on behalf of the child. A parent with physical custody of the child has the right to live with the child. Generally speaking, the residence of the parent with physical custody of the child would be considered the child’s primary residence.

A parent with child custody rights may have the right to:

  • Make education decisions for the child such as what type of school they go to, what type of courses the child should take, etc.;
  • Make decisions regarding what religion to raise the child in, if any;
  • Enter into certain legal contracts on behalf of the child; and
  • Make decisions regarding the child’s health care.

Are There Different Types of Child Custody Rights?

The following are different types of custody that are available to parents upon divorce or separation. It is important to note that the exact definition of these may depend on the state in which you live:

  • Legal Custody:
    • How it works: This type of custody gives a parent the legal right and obligation to make decisions regarding the child’s upbringing. Examples include decisions on important matters such as the child’s schooling, healthcare, and religious upbringing. Many states allow joint legal custody of a child, which refers to both parents having the ability to make important decisions.
    • Advantages: This is the most common type of child custody available. It allows both parents to make decisions about the child’s upbringing. However, in many cases, only one parent has legal custody. This is usually the custodial parent.
    • Disadvantages: Conflicts can and often do arise between the upbringing approaches of the parents, which can result in a confusing environment for the child. Additionally, if one parent attempts to keep their child away from another parent who has legal custody, the second parent can have a judge order the first parent into court. This process can be quite expensive and emotionally contentious.
  • Physical Custody:
    • How it works: This type of custody involves the legal right to have a child physically live with one parent. Some states recognize joint or shared physical custody in which a child lives with each parent for relatively equal amounts of time.
    • Advantages: Physical custody allows each parent to spend a maximum amount of time with their child, depending on various factors.
    • Disadvantages: Parents must generally live close to each other in order for shared physical custody arrangements to work. Additionally, parents must have a workable and peaceful relationship in order to avoid conflict for the children.
  • Sole Custody:
    • How it works: With sole custody, only one “custodial” parent has custody for most of the time; the other parent is permitted only child visitation rights, which will be further discussed below. Courts are moving away from this arrangement unless the child is in clear danger in one parent’s household. And, some courts grant generous visitation rights to the noncustodial parent.
    • Advantages: Sole custody arrangements are considered to be the least disruptive of a child’s life, and can provide some consistency.
    • Disadvantages: It can result in limited connection of one of the parents to their children, often leading to heightened animosity between parents.
  • Joint Custody:
    • How it works: This type of custody occurs when parents agree, or a court orders them to agree, to share decision-making and child-raising responsibilities. The parents will synchronize their schedules in order to make the arrangement work, or else a court will order them to do so. Joint custody may refer to joint legal custody, joint physical custody, or some mix of both.
    • Advantages: This type of child custody assures children of continuing contact and involvement with both of their parents, and alleviates some of the burdens of parenting for each parent.
    • Disadvantages: Children must be shuttled around, and any instance of parental non-cooperation can have seriously devastating effects on their children. Additionally, maintaining two homes for the children can be expensive.
  • Birds Nest Custody:
    • How it works: Children remain living in the family home, and the parents take turns moving in and out.
    • Advantages: Bird’s nest custody is generally not as disruptive for the children.
    • Disadvantages: This can be expensive and disruptive for parents, and might not be successful unless parents have other places to live on off days.

Are Visitation Rights The Same Thing As Child Custody Rights?

Visitation rights are the rights of non-custodial parents to see their child on some sort of a regular basis. Non-custodial, in this case, refers to the parent who does not have physical custody of the child. However, non-custodial parents do not automatically receive visitation rights. An example of this would be how non-custodial parents with a history of abusing or neglecting the child may be denied visitation rights.

The terms of visitation are laid out in what is called a “Child Visitation Agreement” or “Child Visitation Schedule.” Generally, child visitation arrangements can be broken down into one of two types:

  • Unsupervised visitation, which allows the non-custodial parent to spend their scheduled time with the child without being supervised by a neutral third party; or
  • Supervised visitation, which the court may order for a variety of reasons including: reintroduction of parent and child; parenting concerns or mental illness; a history of abuse, substance abuse, or neglect; and, if there is a threat of kidnapping.

In supervised visitation cases, the judge will specify the time and duration of visits, and will also designate a third party who will perform the supervision.

Can Child Custody Rights Be Changed?

Child custody needs may be subject to change as the situation of the children and parents can change over time. This is natural and understandable for the courts, who are generally willing to make changes to a custody agreement when necessary.

Modification of a child custody order can be achieved by making a request with the court. The court will review the various changes occurring in the parents’ and children’s lives, and will make the appropriate adjustments to the custody arrangement.

It is important to note that child custody changes should follow the legal procedures of the court. What this means is that you should not attempt to change the type of custody on your own outside of the court process. This can result in even more legal issues, conflicts, and violations, which can all result in the violating parent facing punishment. They also risk losing custody or visitation rights. As such, it is imperative that all custody changes are approved by a judge before moving forward with implementing the changes.

To reiterate, if there is some sort of a significant change in circumstances, a modification can result in a change in the child custody rights of a parent. An example of this would be how if a parent becomes incarcerated, that parent may lose child custody rights.

Another example would be if the parent who originally had physical custody of the child loses their job, while the other parent is more financially stable. In such a case, the court might give physical custody of the child to the more financially stable parent.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Child Custody Rights?

In order to keep the child’s best interests at the forefront, you should consult with a child custody lawyer regarding child custody rights. Your attorney can help you understand your state’s specific laws, and what your legal rights and options are under those laws.

Additionally, an experienced attorney will also be able to represent you in court as needed throughout the process.